So the next day (after much car related shenanigans), we hit the road for Uganda and our second gorilla experience. In the planning, we had thought that day 1 would be so overwhelming we should have two days, so we could savour the experience on the second day. We couldn’t afford Rwandan prices, hence the move to Uganda. Uganda have a number of different places where you can trek from to see the gorillas and some are easier than others. The permits for the easier ones sell out quickly so our lack of organisation saw us going to Nkuringo, well known for being a bit of a bitch.
We had a travel day, getting across the very bureaucratic and Ebola controlled boarder, getting SIM cards and money, then heading off on dirt tracks for 2.5 hours through the mountains to Nkuringo.
Uganda and Rwanda are different and the same. On both sides of the boarder they ask questions on behalf of their national bureau of stats. On the Rwandan side the info is pumped straight into an iPad, on the Ugandan side, straight into an exercise book. This is a micro example of the relative development of both countries. There is also noticeably more plastic rubbish on the roads and in the towns on the Ugandan side (Rwanda is immaculate. We wondered if it was because they have an out 120,000 criminals from the genocide doing community service but noted that everybody seemed to do their bit), and there is a little less order on the Ugandan side too. Really lovely people are on both sides.
Getting to Nkuringo
We arrived at Nkuringo at about 3.30 with two missions; to ensure we had all the details for the next days trek and to find somewhere to stay. Both had mixed success.
We got to the park office shortly before they closed and found a very charming and military bunch of rangers; rifles, saluting etc. We had been trying to book the trek for some time and the principle challenge is the lack of IT in Uganda, so most pick up physical permits from Kampala or have a tour company collect them. Our ‘self-drive’ approach meant that after some to-ing and fro-ing (aka J being bloody persistent), we got a letter from the Ugandan Tourist Baird to show to the head warden. So we met John-Justice, after a young officer marched smartly in to his office, saluted and introduced us. 10 mins later it was agreed that we did have permits, that the day was overbooked but they could make it work. As the rain lashed down, thunder boomed and lightning struck, we kind of hoped they couldn’t make it work and offer us a refund.
The hotel hunt was interesting; the place I thought looked ok was beautiful and as they only had 2 residents in a 90 person hotel, offered us a discount; only US$480 a night…… so we left.
Nearby was the 7 Volcano View Resthouse and we had discovered this was pretty much the only other gig in town. It didn’t look open or finished when we arrived and the combination of torrential rain, mud, a very slow response to us knocking on the door and a general feeling of abandonment meant that the charming young host was rewarded with grumpiness. They had no electricity, could not promise hot water (it was solar and there hadn’t been a lot of sun) and due to the fact there was a guide as the only other guest, didn’t have much in the way of food. For all that, we got a big room with a big bathroom with the potential of an amazing view (if the rain stopped)for less than a tenth of the other place. They also let us use their kitchen (a gas bottle connected to two rings, a sink and a sideboard) to cook our own ‘emergency rations’ that we had been carrying with us. They lit a fire, gave us hot water bottles for our bed, provided beer and the clouds lifted, so we very quickly warmed to them.
We also met the other guest; Wilson, a lovely local ish man with a lovely story involving a short career as an IT salesman that necessitated him buying a 4x4, a loss of job, followed by a demand from tour companies for his 4x4 leading him to get educated as a guide. He ploughs some of his money back into his village; buying sewing machines for the women, putting a cover over the area where the sewing machines are and funding a teacher. The last minimises the drowning of children who used to go to the local school across a log over a river (in one year, they lost 8 children…… we really do not understand how lucky we are).
7 Volcanoes View Resthouse
The next morning started early and involved some car based frustration (more about that later), and we arrived at the starting point at about 7.30. We had heard lots of horror stories about just how hard the Nkuringo treks are, of people being carried out (for US$350… in cash) and of 8 hour epics, so were relieved to see a couple of larger people and some old people. We wanted to be in their groups. We weren’t. We weren’t even with the group that had one man start on a stretcher (not a miss type).
We were with 5 other people, all of whom looked fit. We also had the opportunity to hire porters and as we had researched the positive impact hiring them has on their families, and that they may only get one gig a month (at a min of US$15 for a full days work), we hired two. I was slightly horrified when I met mine, the 5 foot something, 55kg Sabrina, who was to carry my bag for me…….. She, and Gregory who Jodie hired, were outstanding. Sabrina’s lightning sharp reactions vice like grip saved me from falling a number of times and Gregory was invaluable to J.
So we set off at about 8.15 am. The first three plus hours was down hill, initially through villages, then through steep agricultural land, then through very, very steep tea plantations. To quote one of the Americans with us “That wasn’t walking, that was a controlled fall’.
Once at the bottom, sitting at the edge of the jungle, we waited for about 30 minutes for the trackers to tell us where the family were when the stopped moving, then we were told ‘we’re off! It’s about 30 minutes from here.’ Fucking liar......
The next 2 hours or so were spent hacking through thick (impenetrable) jungle, walking up a lot of vertical muddy slopes and wading fast flowing streams. At one stage, ahead of us, I saw the photographer lose her footing, slip off the path and was luckily grabbed by the porter before being hauled back up. The slope wasn’t sheer, but the steepness and mud would ensure the tumble would have been long, fast and painful. 5 mins later, J did he same thing..... and luckily both Gregory and I got a hand to her and hauled her back up. As J exclaimed, sometimes walking in thick jungle on a mountain is ‘fucking dangerous!’. Whilst physically I did not find it demanding, I did think the terrain was the hardest I’d ever walked on for a prolonged period of time. We really did have to concentrate on every step.
Eventually, shortly before 3pm, we got to them. They had settled in thick bush, sleeping and relaxing. One of the women was enjoying an afternoon wank. Some gorillas have no shame. Even on the second time of seeing them, they are amazing and we felt privileged to be there..... as well as feeling just a tad fucked (J, sitting 5 meters from 2 gorillas, one of which was 5 days old; “this is fucking shit”...).
Then we began the walk out. The jungle bit was downhill but a challenge never the less. It was also pissing down by this stage, so when we got to the rivers and streams, we didn’t bother taking off shoes and socks coz we were soaked anyway.. Once out of the jungle, it was about 1.5 hours through tea plantations then us a long slow hill before we reached our cars at about 5pm, some 8.5 hours since we set off. When I say our cars, ours was still in the car park as we are self-drive, but luckily the Americans had room for both us and our porters back to the park HQ. Thank fuck they did; it took us more than a hour in a car; J and I would have died. I loved America so much by the end I considered getting that Stars and Stripes tattooed on my face.
For J, this really was a tough day; probably the hardest walking she had experienced since the rather tough Royal Military Academy Sandhurst exercise called Long Reach that she had completed some 25 years earlier. Sometimes things are tough and once you are in that situation you can do two things; crack on or give up. I always admire J’s ability to crack on. One day she will do so without giving me a hard time. One day.
The Trek From Hell
From Bwindi, we drove through beautiful countryside and jungle around the forest, down onto the plain and to the Ishasha sector of the Queen Elizabeth National Park, mostly along dirt roads. Due to car based frustrations (more about that later), the 5 hour journey to our next destination took over 8 (one breakdown, the mechanic getting us lost in the jungle, then getting us bogged in on a ‘shortcut’ are the highlights). It was dark, we were filthy and we had with us a mechanic that had needed some persuasion to stay with us (I am happy to embellish on the word ‘persuasion’ over a beer, but not in writing!!) when we arrived at the lodge.
Enjojo Lodge was way off our budget, but after the past few days we needed hot water etc. We were going to stay one night, but due to car based frustration, kicked the arse right out of it by staying two. The lodge is in beautiful parkland, has a lake that is visited by all kinds of birds, great service and the cottages were beautifully put together, on stilts over marshland, with open air showers and surrounded by the sounds of nature. Really beautiful and at that point, the nicest place we had stayed on the trip,
During the afternoon, we went on a game drive to the park proper in the hope of seeing the famous tree climbing lions, hippos, elephants and other animals. As our car was crap, lions are dangerous and the park unknown we hired the lodges car and driver/guide to take us. We had a lovely few hours, saw all we wanted including a big male lion sleeping in a tree (king of the jungle = lazy fat bastard around there). On our return from the hippos to the lion, just as we were about to drive through a big group of Baboons, the car hit a hole and we got well and truly stuck.
I’ve never been stuck in an open sided vehicle in a park with dangerous and aggressive animals before but assumed the guide had a plan. He didn’t have a plan, a shovel, a rope, or a diff that worked, so we had to get out and push, in the process getting covered in mud again. After much effort and frustratingly watching the one airborne wheel attract all the power, we were getting concerned, and we all agreed that walking into the bush to try to find wood to put under the wheel was foolish. A few calls later and a small team from a Ugandan Army camp a km or so away was dispatched with a shovel, a machete and an AK47. 30 mins after their arrival, after pushing, digging and J doing a bit of directing of the Ugandan Army, we escaped. All very exciting.
Close to our lodge we, and two other safari cars were halted again by a truck that had spilled a load of long poles all over the road and after a couple of minutes of watching a 12 year old and a 15 year old struggle to clear it, I hopped out to help. After 5 mins or so our guide and another were shamed into helping too. It was towards the end I noticed that the original kids and the owner of the van had decided to stand back and watch us!
Queen Elizabeth National Park
The next morning we left early for the 5 hour trip to what was always going to be a treat; staying in Mihingo Lodge at Lake Mburo and going on a horseback safari. Despite problems, the car got us there and I vowed not to drive it again. The first 70km was through the park was gorgeous and we saw lots of wildlife including elephants by the side of the road. We also had to negotiate patches of dirt as slippery as ice and bogged in trucks. The last 30 km was beautiful too and we saw our first zebras, our first long horned cows and lots and lots of impala.
The approach to the lodge was interesting, involving very basic dirt roads and due to the fact that I miss-read a sign, very boggy roads (‘oh, you took the ‘water road’. Wow. Well done for getting through’) and no sight of the lodge. When we got there we had a real ‘Wow!’ moment when we eventually came across this wonderful organic building on top of a hill, with a pool overlooking a waterhole and views to die for. Our room was half mud/brick, half tent and was incredibly well put together. Enojojo was pushed into second place and I think that Mihingo lodge may be one of the most special places we have ever been to.
Whilst there was 14 cottages, we were the only guests and enjoyed the pool, feeding the bush babies and watching the sun set, before an early night ahead of the following days 7 am start for the horseback safari.
We had two guides - Tom and Charles - and our two horses were massive ex racehorses (J’s was 16.2 hands) his shoulder was above her head) and with them spent the next four hours, walking, trotting and cantering alongside zebras, Impala, giraffes (the horses are a little afraid of these strange creatures and a little hard to handle), warthogs and hippos, as well as lots of other animals. I have to say that the novelty of riding amongst these creatures is very, very special and we would do it everyday if we could.
The last morning, I was up early again and pretty much had the same experience on foot, running with Tom as my guide (didn’t see giraffes but saw all the rest, including getting rather close to hippos) and have to say it was the most fascinating run of my life. The fresh leopard tracks were a bit special too.
Our trip back to Kigali was reasonably straightforward: we had ditched the car and insisted that the hire company paid for car and driver to take us to the airport. Other than the drivers desire to break speed records and a bit of an argument at the car rental office (they had agreed to pay us back for the camping equipment too, but at the last minute decided to shortchange us) it all went well, so well that we arrived 4.5hrs early for our flight. In Kigali, it’s not just that the check-in doesn’t open until 3 hours before departure, the airport won’t let you in, so the first 1.5 hours were spent in a booze free café, then the next three is a very basic lounge before we boarded a thoroughly average Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul.
One of the things that struck us in both countries is just how hard people work. There are no gangs of men hanging around starring like you see in some developing countries and both sexes graft hard. In most developing countries, the super rich have expensive cars, the rich cars, the majority scooters and the poor have bicycles. Here, take one step and a bit steps down. Few have cars of any type, people are lucky if they have a scooter and few have bikes. Most walk or, if they can afford it, hire a mototaxi or a bike taxi. The last are just that; brightly painted, old fashioned, sturdy bicycles with a cushion on the back shelf for one adult, a couple of children or massive amounts of goods to sit on.
They can’t cycle up all the many, many hills but they do manage gradients with people on the back that I would struggle with riding my posh bike on my own. Going down hill, they get some speed up. 60-70 kph. We where passed, in our car, round a corner by a bike with three people on doing about 70kph. Thinking about what would happen if it all went wrong makes my stomach turn.
As I say, most walk. They walk to school, walk to the market and earn money by carrying heavy things from one place to another on their heads. We saw one guy having a bag that needed two people to lift to help him get it on his head. He then headed up a very steep hill. When I looked at the strain on people’s faces, it reminded me of the really tough days in the army when we were carrying 60+kg of weapons, water, ammunition etc up hill and down dale, and we had to dig really deep to get through it. It felt really, really tough. Perhaps I had to really dig deep for a sustained period less than 100 times in a 17 year career. These people do it for 30 years, every single day.
We really, really don’t know what hard work is:
I had a tough day at the office today; loads of emails.
I had a tough day at work too. I carried 70kg on my head to 10 miles of hilly dirt road, but I got $1.
I had a tough day today; the boss wasn’t very pleasant.
I had a tough day too. I pushed on my bike so many huge bunches of bananas for 30km, I couldn’t fit on the bike and every step up hill took all my effort.
I had a tough day in the office to day; back to back meetings that didn’t achieve very much.
I had a terrible day today. No large weights to carry, no banana bunches to push, so no money; I don’t know what my kids will eat tonight.
It is either despite this, or because of this that people are charming, friendly and helpful and makes a visit really interesting and rewarding.
Besides the car crap, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in both countries. You have to understand you are in Africa so there are shortages, roads are crap (in Rwanda the main roads are good, pretty much empty cars) and people can be a bit unreliable and if you do you’ll be fine. Some of the frustration came from peoples desire to not give you bad news, so they will say what they think will make you happy.
It really does feel like an adventure too. It’s not completely mad and difficult like some places can be, but it is a different culture, a challenge and a very different environment. We really want to go back, spend more time and actually do the camping thing properly.
We have considered the pros and cons of the self drive thing and concluded we would do it again. The breaking down was a pain, but through it we got to meet lots of new people and see the very best in the local community. We got to change plans, stop where we wanted, eat alone without the need for small talk to a driver and mostly feel in control.
If it’s not on your holiday radar, give it some thought.
Going Back to Kigali
Rwanda or Uganda for a Gorilla Trek?
So, having done both, how do they compare? If we were to do it again, what would we do differently?
Firstly, I do not think it is necessary to do it twice. Once is magical and the memories will stay with me for a long, long time (and Facebook will remind me every year). Secondly, I do not think that ‘earning the right to see gorillas’ adds anything to the experience. Once you have walked an hour or so in the forest, you know you are somewhere very different and special. Walking 5 hours just makes you tired. If you want to do two different things; combine a hard trek through challenging terrain with seeing the Gorillas, go to Nkuringo, but I recommend keeping the activities seperate.
Also, whilst we only saw a particular family, on a particular day with a particular guide, so know that all these variables can change, the Rwanda experience was better organised, the guide more knowledgeable and communicative and the terrain meant that once we found the family, it was much easier to see what they were doing and the interaction was much better. It may be different with the other families on the northern edge of Bwindi.
The Rwandan permit is almost 3 times the price of the Ugandan one ($1500 v $600), so that is a real factor. Why? Everything is more expensive in Rwanda, but the plan is to use the money to buy land from farmers and increase the size of the park. Thanks to the great work of the authorities in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, the population of gorillas is on the up. The downside is that now, fights over territories between families have led to an increase in the deaths of Silverbacks. To grow the population more, they need more land. I am happy for my $s to support that. That said, whatever you do is magical, a privilege and totally worth it.